The middle school and high school years are a time of growing pains for many children (and the adults in their lives).
As students move from childhood to adulthood they have to pass through the difficulties of adolescence. In this delicate time, young adults are rapidly absorbing and assimilating information all around them from parents, teachers, friends, TV, internet, and society at large. The challenge that no one wants to tackle, however, is one of the most important and foundational in the life of a young adult – relationships with the opposite sex.
At home, conversations around this topic are shut down before they even start – “Don’t talk to boys. You are going to school to study!”
At school, the teacher shuts down the discussion as well – “Boyfriends and girlfriends are haram!” Enough said.
So, what happens?
When a responsible adult does not want to address the topic of gender relations, someone out there will try and fill that void in the life of the young adult. . .
Curiosity will lead the young person to get answers to these questions from all kinds of sources.
And some of the more bold ones may actually experiment with and try and figure out this boyfriend-girlfriend stuff. Making mistakes in life is character building and the way you handle and grow through challenges really defines who you are. But unfortunately, some mistakes are such that once made they change the direction of your life in dramatic ways.
Though proper relationships with the opposite sex are vital and ultimately lead to “half our deen,” very few adults will take the time to really elucidate this phrase. What does it mean? Where should one learn what this means?
From the teacher.
The teacher is not just an instructor, but a role model, a mentor, a guide.
It’s not just about teaching the subject at hand but helping the young adult walk through life in a way that helps him or her attain inner virtue and be in the favor of their Lord. It is incumbent on the teacher to explain matters that are necessary for outward religious practices as well as inward spiritual matters.
What would this require of our teachers? – To teach about gender and sexuality.
The emotional and physical changes that a young adult begins to experience at this age are very normal and nothing to be shut down either at home or school, but rather to be framed within the example of our Prophet, peace and blessings upon him.
The goal should not be to simply counter and respond to specific issues around dating, homosexuality and other gender and sexuality issues that are prevalent in society. It should be to develop a strong narrative around human relationships from within our tradition. This strong narrative should be something the young adult recognizes. What was the relationship of the Prophet Muhammad with his uncle, his grandfather, and his cousins? What was the relationship he had with the Companions?
By talking about the relationship the Prophet had with these individuals, students should be able to connect to their own relationships with family and friends.
And what should be highlighted in this narrative?
Love, honor, mercy, understanding, and sacrifice.
Allah revealed the Quran to the people of Mecca by first describing Himself, by talking about morality and ethics, by essentially kindling a love for Islam in the hearts of the early Muslims. Rules and laws came later when the early Muslim community settled in Medina.
In the same way, teachers should work to highlight love, honor, mercy, understanding and sacrifice in the Prophet’s relationships with his family and friends. And then introduce the rules, regulations, and responsibilities we have towards other human beings. It all makes sense then.
Next, take this narrative and move into gender relations, specifically the husband-wife relationship, with examples such as:
- Khadijah and the Prophet
- Aisha and the Prophet
- The Prophet’s daughter Zainab and her husband Abu l-As
How were love, honor, mercy, understanding, and sacrifice actualized in these marriages?
When the purity of these emotions are made evident to the students through Khadijah’s devotion to the cause of her husband, Aisha’s fun and youthful interactions with the Prophet, and the affection between Zainab and her childhood sweetheart, students will be better able to understand their identities as male or female individually AND in relation to the opposite sex.
Depth and purity in relationships such as these are possible when a person has followed proper conduct with the opposite sex and guarded their dress and interactions. The rules of gender relations will be more acceptable to these young minds if the narrative presented is strong and connects to their hearts. The hope is that the narrative will also be strong enough to counter the incessant pressure that these young individuals face regularly.
How should we start writing such a narrative?
Read and listen to MANY different presentations about the Prophet and his relationships with his family and friends. Pay close attention to how he interacted with his wives. Different writers and different speakers shed different shades of meaning on to his life, helping to form a comprehensive picture. You could start with books such as:
- Fethullah Gulen’s The Messenger of God: Muhammad – An Analysis of the Prophet’s Life
- Tariq Ramadan’s In the Footsteps of the Prophet
- Martin Lings’ Muhammad
Each of these three scholars has a nuanced presentation of the Prophet’s life. By weaving together their descriptions, and of course making sure to honor all the details of the Prophet’s life, you can work to bring these relationships to life for your students. Once their hearts are captured, the rest will follow naturally. InshaAllah.